We must rethink the Nationality and Borders Bill to make it easier for Ukrainians to come to the UK
We’ve known for months a refugee situation could very well develop in Ukraine.
Despite this, and not for the first time, the United Kingdom government has shown itself to be uniquely ill-prepared and unwilling to offer sanctuary to our fair share of these victims of war.
All other European countries rose quickly to the Ukraine crisis. Visa requirements were waived, and governments and communities mobilised to help with the emergency. In less than three weeks, Ukraine’s neighbours have taken in two and a half million Ukrainian refugees, including 110,000 in Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries.
And not just their neighbours, countries further afield, like Italy and Ireland, were quick to offer genuine refuge and easy routes to safety. Italy has so far welcomed over 47,000 Ukrainians and Ireland has taken in more than 6,600. According to Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheál Martin, security concerns – cited by the UK – were not a reason to delay their admission, since those arriving are overwhelmingly women and children, all in desperate need.
The visa application process is cumbersome, complicated and certainly not designed to help desperate people
While our European partners hastily convert public buildings into shelters, the most dramatic development in this country has been the enormous outpouring of compassion shown by the British people.
Some 120,000 Britons offered to open their homes to Ukrainians in the first 24 hours of the launch of the UK scheme to house Ukraine refugees and millions of pounds has been raised to help Ukraine in just a matter of days.
This surge in compassion seems to have taken the government by surprise. In stark contrast to our European neighbours, we stipulate that Ukrainians must complete a visa application. The process is cumbersome, complicated and certainly not designed to help desperate people fleeing for their lives.
Until recently, Ukrainians were required to apply for UK visas in person. Since there is no processing office in Calais, they were directed to offices in Brussels, Paris and Lille. The Lille office turned out to be in Arras. In response to national outrage, some changes have been announced to streamline the process, including an online application route, but it’s very little and too late.
As of 4pm on Monday, only 4,600 UK visas had been issued and a much smaller number of Ukrainians have actually managed to negotiate the administrative hurdles placed in their way enabling them to arrive here.
It seems the government has at last realised that they’re on the wrong side of public opinion and it is notable that a new minister, Lord Harrington, has been appointed, with responsibility for refugees.
Regrettably, the government is still pushing ahead with its Nationality and Borders Bill (NAB). The Lords has inflicted a record number of defeats on the Bill – 20 in total – and it will now return to the Commons.
Among the most egregious elements of this Bill is the proposal to criminalise refugees based on the method they used to reach the UK. There is surely a contradiction between the wish, most eloquently expressed by the British people, to welcome Ukrainians, who must inevitably pass through a safe country to get here, and the provisions of the Bill which are intended to make that impossible.
I do not doubt of the sincerity of calls from many Tory MPs for the government to do much more to help Ukrainian refugees, but I hope that their convictions will be translated into an acceptance of the many Lords’ amendments we have proposed - for example, accepting my amendment which would reinstate family reunion rights to unaccompanied child refugees from around Europe, rights that this has government has quietly dismantled, leaving children stranded in Europe with relatives here with no safe routes to join them.
The Bill in its unamended form does Britain a disservice. I hope the government and the Commons hear the message coming loud and clear from the British people, make it easier for Ukrainians to come here, and rethink the Bill.
Lord Dubs is a Labour peer.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.